Are We Being Told The Truth About Mobile Phones Radiation?
The Sunday Times
Journalists: Cherry Norton and Richard Woods
December 20, 1998
Companies insist mobile phones are safe. Users suspect they cause ill-health. Now scientists say the industry is downplaying evidence of the risks.
Ringing the alarm
Ralph Mills first knew something was seriously wrong with his brain when he began to get lost in his garden. As a long-distance driver he had spent years navigating his way across Europe without difficulty; suddenly he could not leave his house without someone to guide him.
Baffled, he visited his GP. Within an hour he was in hospital, where doctors found a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball above his right ear.
Mills, from Harlow in Essex, had never been seriously ill before and has no history of cancer in his family. Was his tumor mere chance? Or could it, he wondered, be related to his constant use of a mobile phone? His company had given him a mobile in 1985 and for 12 years he had used it, often for about an hour and a half each day.
“I never thought my mobile phone could ruin my health,” said Mills, who is no longer able to work. “But now I believe they are a real hazard.”
He is preparing to sue the manufacturers of the phone for failing to warn him of alleged health risks. More than 20 other people who believe they have suffered brain tumors, memory loss or damage to their immune systems caused by mobile phones are also lining up to seek legal redress.
“A year ago the health risks associated with mobile phones looked very speculative,” said Martyn Day, of Leigh Day and Co, a firm of solicitors that has 24 clients who want to sue mobile phone companies. “But the evidence is mounting up.”
This weekend one of the field’s leading scientific researchers has accused the mobile phone industry of failing to publish new evidence of a link between phone radiation and health. He alleges he was asked to rework his results, which are not yet publicly available, in a more favorable light. Another researcher claims his funding was stopped after he unearthed findings a mobile phone company preferred not to see publicized.
As concerns intensify, the industry maintains there is no risk. “Our position is that there is no substantive evidence to link the use of mobile phones to any adverse health effect,” said Tom Wills-Sandford, from the Federation of the Electronics Industry, which represents mobile phone companies.
To many independent observers, the language of the debate and the battle lines being drawn are all too reminiscent of the arguments over smoking and cancer. After 40 years of research, while the tobacco companies still maintain no link between smoking and cancer has been proven, most doctors believe cigarettes pose a serious risk to human health. Will the same happen with mobile phones?
The image phone companies like to project is of dynamic people reveling in the freedom of mobile communications. Though concerns about the health effects surfaced at least five years ago, the novelty and convenience of the phones drowned out any dissenting voices. As isolated lawsuits claiming health damage began to emerge in the United States, Britain lagged behind, ignoring them in the excitement of developing its own cellular networks.
But in America, Australia and Scandinavia, scientists were beginning to uncover worrying evidence that microwave radiation could cause physiological damage. One of those at the forefront of the research was Dr Henry Lai, an expert in non-ionizing radiation and a professor at the School of Medicine and College of Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, America.
Two and a half years ago The Sunday Times disclosed for the first time scientific research pointing to the possible threat that mobile phones posed to health. Three studies, one by Lai, had found evidence of potentially damaging changes to brain cells linked to radiation. It was the first insight into the risk of mobiles “cooking” the brain based on well-founded scientific evidence.
Lai and a colleague, Dr Narendra Singh, had discovered that low-level microwave radiation could split the DNA molecules in the brains of live rats; such splitting is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
From March to August this year, Lai continued his work, funded by Wireless Technology Research, a body that has received more than £25m in backing from mobile phone companies. His latest study seems to confirm and expand upon his earlier findings.
“Our work has shown that there is an increase of 50% in damage to DNA when it is exposed to mobile phone radiation,” he said. Memory loss is another damaging effect.
He delivered his report to WTR in August. It has not been published. Last week he revealed it was sent back to him twice with requests for alterations.
“They are asking me to change my whole interpretation of the findings in a way that would make them more favorable to the mobile phone industry,” he said. “This is what happened in the tobacco industry. They had data in their hands but when it was not favorable they did not want to disclose it.”
WTR could not disagree more. Its chairman, Dr George Carlo, flatly denied any attempt to manipulate Lai’s findings.
“It is unequivocally untrue,” he said. “The report was amateurish and unprofessional. We have had to try to bring his report up to a level where it can be peer-reviewed and published.”
Lai is not alone in his concerns. Professor Ross Adey, a biologist specializing in radiation effects, has carried out two large studies on animals for Motorola, one of the biggest mobile phone companies. He discovered that microwave radiation had a physical effect on the animals, although it did not necessarily cause brain damage.
“Motorola were not happy that there were any health effects,” claimed Adey. “Their line is that there are no effects.” He said the research had been transferred to another group.
According to Motorola, Adey has his wires crossed. “Our contract was not with Adey personally but with the institute at which he worked. He left the institute and so we were forced to reassess and sever our contract with them,” said Norman Sandler, head of corporate affairs for Motorola in Illinois. “It has nothing to do with his past research. All research to date has shown there is no evidence to support or substantiate any health risks associated with mobile phone radiation.”
That remains the industry’s view in Britain, but the public are becoming disillusioned. The entrepreneur Richard Branson has asked staff at his Virgin Group to fit protective earpieces to their mobile phones after a close friend, who was a heavy mobile phone user, died of a brain tumor.
A 27-year-old British woman, thought to be a senior executive with a mobile phone company, is preparing to sue a phone company after suffering a brain tumor. The woman, so far unnamed, used a mobile for more than an hour a day for two or three years.
The mood is beginning to turn from one of surprise and skepticism to one of suspicion. Next month an epidemiological study of cancer rates among 11,000 mobile phone users will be released. Though companies claim phones do not heat up the brain, the temperature of the debate is rising fast.
Sir Richard Doll, the scientist who found the first strong evidence of a link between smoking and cancer, remembers the problems well.
Though he does not draw similarities between his research into smoking and the potential risks of mobile phones, he does believe the health effects of radiation are worth studying.
“There is some suggestive evidence, which is difficult to dismiss, that radiation emitted from power lines can have adverse effects on human health. So it is imperative to establish whether or not there is a causal link,” he said.
He was the proposer of a study launched last month by the National Radiological Protection Board to establish whether mobile phone and telecommunication radiation can cause cancer. Hundreds of telecommunication engineers will have their health monitored. Doll believes radio masts present a more likely risk than phones.
Research has linked radiation from the aerials – of which there are 8,000 in Britain – to various health risks.
In public, the phone companies dismiss such concerns, but some of their less obvious actions suggest they are worried. Six leading manufacturers have taken out patents for phone components aimed at reducing health risks. Several of these applications were made more than five years ago – suggesting the companies have long considered there was at least a potential hazard.
Patents for microshields, which are designed to reduce the radiation received by the mobile phone user’s head, go back as far as 1993. Shields are now available from independent companies. They do reduce radiation – the question is whether that radiation is harmful.
Put simply, the case for the prosecution is that mobile phones emit low levels of microwaves that may affect the brain in the way a microwave oven cooks food, though at a much higher power.
Recent independent research has suggested an increase in cancer rates among mice exposed to mobile phone radiation; another recorded memory loss in humans; and a large epidemiological study showed an increase in fatigue and headaches among people subjected to the frequency of radiation similar to that used by mobile phones.
The industry denies the findings, claiming the research is flawed, inaccurate and fails to reflect the everyday realities of how people use phones.
As the war of words intensifies, at stake is an industry worth about £6 billion a year. More than 12m people now use mobile phones in the UK, and the numbers are growing fast.
“It is impossible to predict how devastated the market would be if an adverse health link were found,” said Alan Lyons, a telecommunication analyst at the City bank ABN Amro. “But the whole industry is adopting an ostrich approach to whether or not there are any serious health risks.”
Ringing the alarm
Mobile phones emit microwave radiation whenever calls are made. The brain is made up of watery tissue good at absorbing microwave radiation. Scientists believe there may be two main effects: 1. heating tissue 2. altering cell membranes. Microwaves can make membranes more permeable to potassium and calcium ions, which are important to cell functions. Changes may cause damage.
A research project conducted by Dr Alan Preece at Bristol Royal Infirmary, to be published next year, is expected to show that exposure to mobile phone radiation affects short-term ability to perform simple mental tasks.
Earlier this year, a study of 11,000 mobile phone users carried out by Dr Kjell-Hansson Mild, at the National Institute of Working Life in Umea, Sweden, suggested an increase in fatigue, headaches and skin irritation for regular users.
Phone companies also dispute a 1997 study by Dr Michael Repacholi at Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia, which recorded increased cancer rates in mice exposed for an hour a day to electromagnetic fields of the kind emitted by digital mobile phones.
Among the first indications of a risk was work conducted by Dr Henry Lai and Dr Narendra Singh on rats in 1996 which found microwave radiation can split DNA molecules. Breakages are linked with illness that include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and cancer.
Scientists say that cordless phones do not pose any health risks because they use one fifth of the power of most mobile phones.